The Day the Academy’s Doors Opened
By Lt. Col. (Ret.) Steven A. Simon ’77
(This article is dedicated to the 91 surviving members of the Academy’s inaugural class, the Class of ’59.)
In early 1963, Academy officials settled a matter that had lingered for nearly a decade. They announced that, henceforth, the Academy’s official anniversary would be celebrated on 1 April 1954.
On that date, President Dwight Eisenhower had signed Public Law 325, Eighty-third Congress, Second Session, the legislation that established the Air Force Academy. The date came to be known as Founders Day.
Not everyone agrees with that declaration. After all these decades, there is still a strong belief among early Academy officials and graduates that the proper founders day should be 11 July 1955.
Gen. (Ret.) Bradley Hosmer, a member of the Class of ’59, is in that camp.
“For some of us,” he says, “the official birthday of 1 April 1954 is just a bureaucratic check mark, the signing of a piece of paper, on a long list of actions that led to 11 July fifteen months later.”
He certainly has a point. As far as consequential and key events, the July 1955 day had it all over the April 1954 one.
While important, 1 April 1954 featured only a small signing ceremony with President Eisenhower. Attendees at that event included Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Nathan Twining, Superintendent-to-be Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon, and a couple of the members of Congress who had been instrumental in steering the bill through the legislative maze.
The 11th of July, however, was a relative blowout, with significant and historic activities occurring one after the other.
The day began with a young man, Valmore Bourque, waiting patiently for the Academy to open. He was the first to be sworn in (and would later, as a member of the Class of ’60, be the first Academy graduate to die in combat). He was soon joined by 305 more young men, many of whom already had years of college under their belts.
Their morning was not unlike the inprocessing experience shared by every person over the decades who followed them as basic cadets.
“The first day for us was a race,” Gen. Hosmer remembers. “Sign in, take the oath, books and uniforms issue, fall in for basic military training: position of attention and parade rest, haircuts, marching, facing movements, saluting, proper wearing of our initial uniform — the blue bunny suit.”
Unlike every other basic cadet who followed, however, they did not have the luxury of learning to march in obscurity. With minimal training, the new basic cadets were the stars of a dedication ceremony on the Lowry tarmac.
“We had our first military marching performance that afternoon,” Gen. Hosmer recalls. “In the full view of television news, local and national reporters, friends and parents who had come along, and the Air Force heavyweights from the Secretary and Chief on down — we marched in a military manner to take positions at our seats and witness the official opening of the United States Air Force Academy — the afternoon of 11 July 1955, only hours after we signed in and started our journey.”
Their performance did not disappoint.
George Fagan writes in The Air Force Academy: An Illustrated History that, “When the flights of new cadets marched into the ramp, many spectators were astonished to witness a military formation which appeared to be made up of veterans instead of young men who had been civilians only a few hours before. The audience stood up and applauded the marching cadets.”
As they made their appearance seen around the world, the play-by-play was given on live television by the nation’s foremost broadcast journalist, CBS’s Walter Cronkite.
The dedication ceremony also featured the Air Force Band and honor guards from the Academy’s sister academies, West Point and Annapolis.
Speakers at the dedication ceremony included the Air Force triumvirate who had attended the 1 April 1954 bill signing, Secretary Talbott, Chief of Staff Twining and Superintendent Harmon. All made memorable speeches.
In his remarks, Gen. Twining challenged the new cadets by using the now-iconic phrase, forever associated with the Air Force Academy, that Americans had a right to “expect great things” from them.
Among the aircraft that participated in the event’s airshow were B-36s, B-47s and F-84s, all from the Strategic Air Command. The Thunderbirds, a staple at Academy ceremonies ever since, also flew their F-84s over the assembled masses.
For more on the Academy’s early days, see the Heritage Minute on Lowry Air Force Base: https://youtu.be/jDEXAz4SSwU
The Class of ’59 labored at Lowry for three years while the permanent site was being constructed. They and the Classes of ’60, ’61, and ’62 moved to the new campus in August 1958.
On 3 June 1959, 207 members of the Class of ’59 graduated in Arnold Hall, still the only indoor graduation in Academy history, with Cadet Bradley Hosmer leading the way as the top graduate.
So, it all started on 11 July 1955. Or did it actually start on 1 April 1954?
Clearly, the controversy supposedly resolved in 1963 still rages. Might it be time to revisit the topic of the Academy’s anniversary? Perhaps we can have two anniversaries. The first of April 1955 is embedded in Academy lore as Founders Day, so perhaps another name for 11 July 1955?
Gen. Hosmer believes so, saying, “Recognition from the Academy, the Foundation and the AOG of the true ‘First Day’ would be fitting – historically correct, a mark in our heritage to respect, and truly welcome.”
“First Day” does have a nice ring to it.